Life in the U.S. pot-producing capital

First aired on Q (23/08/13)

Journalist Emily Brady takes readers inside the insular world of California's Humboldt County, the biggest pot producer in the U.S., in her new book Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier. In a recent interview on Q, she described the community and its inhabitants, and why the populace is divided on the legalization of pot.

Brady went to California from New York in 2010, when Proposition 19, a proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana, was on the state ballot. Brady said her intent then was to write a book chronicling the campaign to make pot legal. She thought the proposition would pass, but it was defeated. But Brady found a new focus for her book. She travelled to small communities in Humboldt County where the economies were entirely based on marijuana, and found the people fascinating.

"It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been," Brady told guest host Kevin Sylvester, adding that the small towns are tucked away amid majestic redwood forests, down dirt roads that used to be logging roads. The towns are known for being secretive, but Brady said she was able to gain the trust of the people there "by sticking around. It is a secretive community. But it is also a small town, and small towns can be very communal." She pointed out that they hold fundraisers for schools, and have built a community centre and radio station. "I saw myself as a cultural anthropologist, and I lived there for over a year, so I think I paid my dues."


Virtually everyone in the community is involved in the pot industry. "By my estimate it seemed like 90 per cent of the people were growers," Brady said. "It's so widespread that some schools give out pot plants to community members to grow to have harvested and then sold to help pay for books or teachers' salaries."

In her book, Brady focuses on four people who represent different generations and points of view. Mare is an older woman, "a back-to-the-lander" who left Berkeley in the 1970s and who grows a small amount of organic marijuana. Crockett represents the generational divide. "Many of the younger generation don't share the same values as their parents. Many of them are much more commercial about their growing," Brady said. Crockett works with a partner, and their crop is worth a million."They're in it for the money, and they don't want marijuana to be legal, because that means the prices would come crashing down."

Brady also profiles Bob, a police officer, and Emma, the child of a grower. Bob expresses frustration with the law's ambiguity (it's legal to use marijuana and grow a small amount, but not to sell it) and is in favour of legalization.

Emma's experience shows "what it's like to grow up with helicopters buzzing over your house every summer and what it's like to have to live in secrecy," Brady said.

Mare is in favour of legalization. "Her dream is that she gets to step out and say, 'I'm an artisanal marijuana grower,'" Brady said. "She and her friends won't be outlaws any more. They will be legitimate members of society. She's a small farmer who wants her crop to be recognized."

But many other growers fear that if pot is legal, big business will get involved in the industry, "and what they've scratched out of the dirt with their bare hands will get taken away from them." Brady believes that would indeed take place if marijuana were legalized. But she added that even if big business moved into the market, "hopefully there will be a space for artisanal farmers. They'll have a niche market for a premium product."

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